Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Nuclear Weapons and the Gang That Can't Shoot Straight

A sign of poor judgment in recent years are the number of conservatives who think nuclear weapons ought to be used in war. Not only have Cheney and others talked about using nuclear weapons in such places as Iran (to strike its nonexistant nuclear program) but they appear at times to have also encouraged Israel to act as a proxy. The Bush Administration even tried to start a nuclear bunker buster program and although it was reportedly taken off the table, we have no real proof that some sort of nuclear bunker buster program did not go forward. Given the secrecy of the Bush Administration, this is an issue that has never been satisfactorily resolved.

The real issue is that the Bush Administration has been trying to lower the threshold for using nuclear weapons. To lower the threshold may require removing certain civilian controls. We don't know if that's what has happened, but last year the air force transported what they thought were unarmed missles to Louisiana (see Washington Post story). Today, we learn fuses for nuclear weapons were sent to Taiwan; here's an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times:
Pentagon officials said the material sent to Taiwan consisted of four electrical fuses for the ICBM nose cones. The fuses, used to trigger nuclear weapons, do not contain nuclear material.

But experts on nuclear security said the mistaken transfer showed a serious deterioration in the safeguards and controls that the U.S. military has over its nuclear warheads.

"This is really unbelievable," said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which advocates reducing the number of nuclear weapons. "If the Russians had shipped triggers to Tehran, we would be going nuts right now."

The gang that can't shoot straight still occupies the White House. We know that former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, eased rules on special missions using conventional missiles to take out terrorists. One or two of those missions have succeeded. Several, on the other hand, have rained death and terror on wedding ceremonies or family gatherings in Iraq, Afghanistan and the border area of Pakistan in cases of mistaken intelligence. America's 'good guy' image has been severely damaged by such incidents which have involved the killing of women, children and other innocent civilians.

Nuclear weapons, of course, are in an entirely different league and need to be tightly controlled but it is clear that rules regarding nuclear safeguards have broken down. What is not clear is why.

Americans need to think about these issues. Presidential candidate John McCain has talked about staying in Iraq for a hundred years. He has also talked about expanding America's wars (though it's unclear how he's going to pay for them or what advantage these wars offer the American people). McCain also gets confused about al Qaida and Iran. A president following in the footsteps of George W. Bush is not what our country needs.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hillary and Bill Need to Be Transparent

Hillary Clinton represents a rather unique situation in American politics. First, of course, is the fact that she is a former first lady. Now she's very capable and if she had found a way to run a campaign without referring to Bill Clinton's eight years in office, she might have been able to deflect any number of questions that obviously bring Bill Clinton into the equation. But she has run on her experience and that experience includes her eight years as first lady. She leaves the distinct impression that she was intimately involved in many of Bill Clinton's decisions during those eight years. I don't buy her commander-in-chief argument but certainly she was involved in other decisions. One has to assume the situation will be somewhat similar if Hillary becomes president; Bill Clinton will surely offer whatever advice he can. Bill Clinton is therefore an issue.

In 2002, Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq bill, thereby effectively authorizing the war (even if one can argue that was not the full intent of the legislation). In Hillary's case, I always had a question and it was a question that out of respect for the Clintons made me hesitate despite the many contradictions and falsehoods that were put out by the Bush Administration that were obvious at the time. What made me hesitate was a small article somewhere that suggested Bill Clinton had had conversations with Tony Blair and had suggested to Blair that he be patient with George W. Bush. The distinct impression I had was that Clinton was not exactly against the war. Given the ability of the Clintons to spin, I'm sure they can tell a perfectly plausible story of what that was about. But Hillary took a long time to catch up to public opinion on Iraq. Was it because of Bill? I wish we had more transparency on just this one issue alone. Clearly, for the first three years Hillary did an effective job of backing Bush on the strategic aspect of the war in Iraq even if sometimes she was critical of tactical decisions and sometimes questioned the competence of Bush's top officials.

Then there's the income tax problem. Bill and Hillary have not exactly been forthcoming on how much money they have been taking from various people. This matters. Ever since Ronald Reagan took $2 million from Sony after leaving office, the flow of money to former presidents has raised a wide range of issues. The senior Bush, after leaving office, also took huge amounts of money from various sources including the bizarre Rev. Moon. There has been a tendency to look the other way since former presidents are supposedly not directly involved in politics. It's an odd informal rule imposed by the media despite the fact that former presidents have indeed involved themselves in politics. And now we have a former president who may potentially return to the White House with his wife as president.

The issue of income taxes and transparency has been raised today as reported by various news sources, including Reuters:
Obama's tax returns from 2000 to 2006 were posted on his Web site as his campaign pushed to portray Clinton, the New York senator and former first lady, as secretive and unwilling to be open with voters.

Obama, an Illinois senator, has repeatedly asked Clinton to release tax returns for the years since she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, left the White House in 2001.

Obama's request is not unreasonable. Americans, in general, should be asking just who has given money to the Clintons and for what purpose. President Clinton freely admits that he has done well since he left office. If he can speak so freely, that implies he has nothing to hide. Given the huge amounts of money given to other former presidents and the role Bill Clinton is likely to have if Hillary were to make it to the White House, Americans voters need to make sure transparency is observed.

Now I have read that the Clinton campaign is thinking of releasing the tax returns three days before the Pennsylvania primary. That's hardly time to understand what all the names and numbers mean that would appear on a tax return. Nor does it explain why tax returns from earlier years cannot be made now. And of course there is the possibility the Clinton campaign may only offer voters a brief and uninformative summary. The Republicans will clearly make an issue of the Clintons sources of income if Hillary somehow managed to be the party nominee; so the time to deal with this is now.

Transparency requires that we understand the source of the Clintons' considerable new wealth.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bush's Economic Fiasco

Bush's presidency is becoming a spectacular level-five disaster. He denies global warming or tries to ignore it on the days when he acknowledges that it might be true. His environmental policy is a joke. He has no energy policy unless one wants to include the invasion of Iraq. Iraq is a war we did not need but it's making Bush's campaign contributors and friends fairly wealthy. Bush's economic performance has been mediocre at best and has partly depended on playing with various economic indicators. For example, inflation was somewhat low last year because the average price of homes was collapsing (Yes, anything to define 'success').

Bush, of course, has had help from a compliant Republican Congress in his first six years and an obstructionist Repubican bloc in Congress now that the Democrats have been trying to deal with various problems. Then there's Alan Greenspan who has recently lost all credibility despite years of being treated as some kind of economic guru. The current Fed Chairman, Ben Bernanke, is in a deep funk because he knows he screwed up and is a year late in dealing with his screwups. It was his responsibility to keep the president's irrresponsible economic policies from getting out of hand.

The fundamental problem besides corruption, ideological nonsense, privatization, deregulation and a few other examples of greed and stupidity is debt. No one has contributed more to the nation's private and public debt than George W. Bush. First, the president's tax cuts, insane build up of the Pentagon budget and the war in Iraq has burdened Americans with debt for at least a generation or two. Then, there is Bush's hands off attitude toward business which translates all too often into hands off corporate corruption, greed, crime, fraud and general antisocial behavior. During the Bush years, the rule in an administration without rules has been to ignore corporate misbehavior except when business leaders are too stupid to keep their problems off the front pages. Even then, many executives have walked away with a hundred million dollars in the bank.

Bush's friends on Wall Street have done very well for themselves without actually contributing much to the economy. Chris Farrell of Businessweek wonders if the government will hold these Wall Street robber barons accountable; he puts the current situation into perspective (well, not entirely, but we'll get to that further down):

"The Federal Reserve continues to bail out major financial institutions without imposing meaningful conditions to improve their conduct and performance," complains Peter Morici, professor at the Smith Business School at the University of Maryland.

Here's a staggering figure to contemplate: New York City securities industry firms paid out a total of $137 billion in employee bonuses from 2002 to 2007, according to figures compiled by the New York State Office of the Comptroller. Let's break that down: Wall Street honchos earned a bonus of $9.8 billion in 2002, $15.8 billion in 2003, $18.6 billion in 2004, $25.7 billion in 2005, $33.9 billion in 2006, and $33.2 billion in 2007.

Those years were the heyday of the hedge fund pirate, the private equity buccaneer, the 9- and 10-figure-salary quant jock, and other financial creatures who created all kinds of complex securities and highly leveraged transactions....

Many of those complex securities and highly leveraged transactions were crooked as hell. This has created a financial crisis based partly on a very simple fact: a lot of these Wall Street types are no longer trusted to handle other people's money. They have lied and, if they were smart enough to squirrel away their money before the meltdown, they have gotten away with it. At least so far.

Without referring to Wall Street crookedness and administration neglect, Steve Waldman of Interfluidity has a simple analogy to explain the essence of the current crisis:
Alice, Bob, and Sue have ten marbles between them. Whenever one kid wants another kid to take over a chore, she promises a marble in exchange. Alice doesn't like setting the table, so she promises Bob a marble if he will do it for her. Bob hates mowing the lawn, but Sue will do it for a marble. Sue doesn't like broccoli, but if she says pretty please and promises a marble, Bob will eat it off her plate when Mom isn't looking.

One day, the kids get together to brag about all the marbles they soon will have. It turns out that, between them, they are promised 40 marbles! ....

But then Alice, who is smart and foolish all at the same time, points out a curious fact. There are only 10 marbles! Sue says, "That cannot be. I have earned 20 marbles, and I have only promised to give away three! There must be 17 just for me."

But there are still only 10 marbles.

A good part of the problem is that too many people were borrowing money either with little money down on the expectation that real estate would continue to rise (shades of the 1929 crash!) or by using collateral that turned out to be worthless (subprime mortgage derivatives that were given mysterious triple A ratings when they should have gotten ratings reflecting their low and precarious worth). There's the added factor, of course, that overseas money has been pouring into American real estate for years, thus driving up real estate values. But sooner or later, money that isn't really earned has a tendecy to bite back, either through inflation or a major economic stumble. We may be facing both inflation and economic hard times. Not that the last seven years have been particularly bountiful for most Americans.

For twenty-seven years, going back to Reagan's mythological and misremembered presidency, Republicans have been undermining America's economic future with games that favor the few. Those few who are growing wealthier and more powerful have a straightforward set of rules: heads I win, tails you lose. These few are the same clowns who pay for focus groups and political consultants who know how to push people's buttons so that they're too angry to notice they've been bamboozled and manipulated against their own good sense.

John McCain, who admits not knowing much about the economy, may become the next president of the United States. Can we survive four more years of Bush economics?

Even if a Democrat wins, Americans may be facing many adjustments in the next few years to come.

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

2008 Election Priorities: Obama, Clinton and McCain

Reality check. This is what we're facing in the 2008 election:

Bush wants a successor and John McCain is willing to oblige. Look at the picture and note how tired John McCain looks. After seven years of failure, this is the best the Republican party can offer the American people? This is the guy who's mind is going to be clear at 3 in the morning when the phone rings? Hillary Clinton has got to be kidding.

McCain, despite his many lapses in the last four years since he gave up being America's favorite maverick—a reputation that has more to do with the media than reality by the way—has been treated generously and very kindly by the media. He served his country well and there will be no swift-boating from Democrats of this man. But he has weaknesses and Hillary Clinton should not hand him phony ammunition for the fall campaign.

Hillary Clinton has been running on an irritating premise that I wish she would drop. She says she has experience and that she will be ready on day one, particularly when it comes to national security. During Bill Clinton's presidency, she dealt with some foreign policy issues (mostly friendship building) but never handled serious national security matters. She had no national security clearances. If she's implying that she will have Bill Clinton looking over her shoulder, fine. If that's what the American people want. But I wish she would be clear about it. Now Barack Obama has a pretty good sense of humor. Perhaps he should suggest that if he's elected, Bill Clinton could stay in the White House—say for two weeks—in the Lincoln bedroom—since Bill is willing to do considerably more than that for Hillary.

But Bill Clinton had no national security experience when he was elected president and he did fine. He had good people and many former officials to consult. Just as Barack Obama will if he is elected. Obama has already shown that he has an ability to pick a good team. Despite Hillary's fame, the advantage of the Bill Clinton machine and millions of dollars from big donors, Hillary's campaign has made mistakes and she has had trouble finding her stride, possibly because she made decisions that might have been fine in the last election but not this one. In contrast, Barack Obama has shown that he understands the times and that he knows a thing or two about running a big operation. He still leads in delegate count.

I would gladly vote for Hillary Clinton but she has to think about the party and what it takes to win the election. She should not win the nomination using fear tactics. She should not win a nomination by going negative on a fellow Democrat or playing games with the system. Hillary can quickly change the tenor of the nomination by releasing her tax returns. She needs to affirm her integrity and credibility. Americans have had seven years of incompetence, fraud, lies and nonsense. We do not need more of it. If Hillary can win the nomination by taking the high road, I'm all for it. But if she can only win by playing dirty politics and throwing roses to McCain, then it's time for her to fold her tent. Americans deserve change.

McCain does not represent that change. He appears to have won the nomination by default after several candidates imploded. Esssentially McCain won because he was every Republican's second or third choice. No doubt Republicans will rally around him but it is an odd nomination.

McCain has a number of problems. We're seeing more and more of his bad temper. I have also heard him make comments about Vietnam that suggest he's still fighting that war—he has not put it behind him. His voting record is as conservative as any Republican of the last two generations and he has no solutions for the colossal failures, incompetence and corruption of the last seven years. He knows how to schmooze with reporters but that ability is based largely on telling reporters what they want to hear and adjusting his comments according to the shifting winds. His votes often do not reflect what he says. He contradicts himself a great deal but he leaves no doubt that he is a friend of corporate lobbyists looking for a free handout. There is more. I hold McCain responsible, as an example, for his comment that we might be in Iraq another hundred years. Americans need to reject Republican-style neocolonialism.

Americans need to be realistic about what is happening to our country. A lot of ideologues and wealthy people have been sacrificing pieces of our country's future to make a few extra bucks. And people have died because of other people's greed and political indifference. We need reform and we need change.

Democratic leaders need to keep a sharp eye on our nation's priorities as the Democratic nomination continues. I'm concerned that John Edwards' progressive talking points are quickly being forgotten and his best points need to be remembered. This is above everything else an election about change. If Clinton and Obama play clean, let the chips fall where they may. But if either candidate starts going too dirty or forgets what the election is about, the party's superdelegates and elders need to say enough is enough and close ranks to maintain the viability of the Democratic party.

Let there be no doubt that Bush and his corrupt friends will be doing everything they can to help John McCain win in the fall elections. Without a democratic president, there will be no change come next year. The failures of the last seven years will continue. Once again, this is the future we're in danger of facing:

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Monday, March 03, 2008

The Chalabi Cousins and Pie in the Sky Oil News

Remember Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraq National Congress and darling of the neoconservatives? He did much to feed false information about Iraq to the Bush Administration and somehow, curiously, was never brought to account. He has done well.

After failing to lead some sort of democratic revolution that Bush and his friends were counting on, Chalabi somehow got involved in various aspects of Iraqi government including some aspects of oil. He's now involved in debaathification but still has connections to Iraq's oil business and has a cousin who was the oil minister. We wouldn't want to judge people by their relatives but Fadhil Chalabi sounds too much like his more famous cousin who was very adept at telling people what they wanted to hear:
Chalabi, a former senior Iraqi oil ministry official, believes the country has huge undiscovered reserves on the grounds but no major development projects have been undertaken for more than two decades.

The proven reserves were officially put at 112 billion barrels in 2007 but Chalabi believes the final figure could exceed 300 billion barrels. “Iraq could have this figure, there is no exaggeration in this,” he said.

Iraq has large proven oil reserves that are substantial but there's been a tendency for countries in the Middle East to exaggerate their reserve potential. Even Saudi Arabia wants us to believe that it might have large undiscovered reserves in its 'Empty Quarter.' There are people, including Fadhil Chalabi, who argue that Iraq may have more oil than Saudi Arabia though they don't seem to make clear whether those reserves might be more than Saudi Arabia's fictitious figures or its real figures. This begs the question of course of motivation. If an Iraqi is genuinely concerned about the future of his country, should he speak up now about possible reserves or should he wait until after the Americans leave?

There's been a tendency since the sharp oil price hikes in 2005 for reports on new oil finds to focus on the high end of possible reserves. It doesn't seem to matter whether the oil finds are in the Gulf of Mexico, Brazil or Siberia. To date, the high numbers have not been justified. We have a problem and we're still moving in slow motion to deal with it.

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